There was a time during the 70s and 90s when many pop stars from the developed world were picking out African tunes and churning them out into mega hits, making personal fortunes in the process. Of course, the origin of jazz and blues can be traced back to African music, but the power of Afro music to rejuvenate Western music from time to time remained rather consistent. Consider bands like Deep Forest that rose to fame during 90s with super hits often based on Afro tunes, or the likes of afros pop stars like Yossou NDour and Salif Keita who made big splashes from time to time. In addition, there are several one hit wonders (on an international scale) like Ghanaian rapper Blakk Rasta whose song based on Barack Obama became a youtube hit during the Obama frenzy of last year.
African music is by nature jaunty, with a certain perkiness attached to it. The tunes are ones that could make even the ones made of single piece of bone attempt a tap or two. And the characteristic female background chorus adds in an unfamiliar language adds the exotic charm to it. At the same time, the style leaves enough avenues for sophistication. For example, the works of Ethiopian artist Mulatu Astatke could easily rival those from mainstream American jazz greats. While being characteristically jaunty, the music also has a serious side. Artists such as Papa Dube (murdered by carjackers) spent years using music to raise socio-political issues in South Africa. Miriam Makeba (Mama Afrika) was one of the most prominent symbols against the apartheid regime.
With such richness, the one artist that stands out for me is Fela Kuti. Intensely politically, extremely bashful and irrelevant towards all religions, musical polymath and genius, he must be the one with the largest shoulders among modern African musicians. One of the criticisms of this genius has been his supposed misogyny, courtesy his songs like Lady which suggests that African women would rather be a Lady rather than her natural rugged self. His brash polygamy (27 wives, 12 of whom he once divorced at one go) was also an area that drew him flak. These issues apart, one of my favorite songs is his Shuffering and Shmiling, which apart from its excellent afrobeat has the following lyrics (excerpts courtesy songmeanings.net):
I want you all to please take your minds
Out of this musical contraption
And put your minds into any goddamn church
Any goddamn mosque
Any goddamn Celestical
Including Seraphoom and Cheruboom…..
Suffer, suffer for world
Enjoy for Heaven
Christians go dey yab
"In Spiritum Heavinus"
Muslims go dey call
My people them go dey follow Bishop
Them go follow Pope
Them go follow Imam
Them go go for London
Them go go for Rome
Them go go for Mecca
Them go carry all the money
Them go juba Bishop
Then them go start to yab themselves:….
Then Fela keeps saying something in mock Latin and Arabic…
Must listen for all skeptics….